The author shares several stories from the recent past to support her argument that there is no true online equivalent for face-to-face qualitative research.
Editor's note: Jennifer Karsh is founder and president of Axen Research, Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared in the September 23, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.
Several years ago I spoke to a colleague who had just returned from a future-of-marketing-research-type conference. As we spoke, her head seemed to be spinning from the dramatic declarations made at the conference. The most notable presentation title declared the death of qualitative research. She was both perplexed and alarmed by the notion and we spent the better part of an hour debating and deliberating the future of our industry.
That was four years ago. And I can honestly say that in the years since, we have actually experienced an uptick in our business. Why? There are many possible reasons but I believe that the proliferation of technology and online research has only made it more apparent that there is no replacement for face-to-face research.
I'll start with a recent story. About three months ago, we conducted an ethnographic research study to explore how moms keep themselves and their families organized. We considered a number of different research approaches but settled on a design that included a netnography (an online community), as well as a series of in-home interviews. Over the course of our netnography, the women we interviewed online shared many interesting organizing systems they employ. They posted fascinating pictures and gave us a guided tour of their home offices, calendars and file drawers.
From these contributions, we gathered some informative preliminary data but nothing groundbreaking - no big insight. Then, for three solid weeks, we embedded ourselves in family homes across America, closely shadowing busy moms as they planned menus and sleepovers and organized meetings and soccer games and doctor appointments - all the while toggling between multiple family members.
Through riding in their cars, talking over coffee and even helping change a few diapers, we came to the real story behind moms and family organization. While I cannot share the specifics, I can tell you this: So often in research, as in life, the journey is the destination. Applied to research, the seemingly small events that happen within an interview most often ladder to the very meaning of that interview. We could never have gathered the feeling of pride that comes from a diaper being close at hand, right where it is supposed to be, without being physically present. If life is what happens when you are busy making plans, then insight is what happens when you are busy conducting an ethnography.
The Catfish bulletin board
There is a great show on MTV right now called Catfish. It's named after a documentary that took audiences by storm a few years ago. The premise is that appearances can be deceiving, particularly online. Each Catfish episode follows the story of a couple who met online, fell in love and are soon about to meet. The catch? At least one person is not who they claim to be. Sometimes it's a young woman who is actually a man, sometimes is a jaded ex-lover trying to exact revenge. The possibilities are endless, as is the drama.
I recently had my very own Catfish experience - not with online dating but with online research. We had partnered with an online research firm to conduct a series of bulletin boards. One board was recruited to be a panel of local shoppers with whom we would meet following their one-week board. When we showed up to the participants' houses that week, the participants were not who they said they were; they spoke different languages; and they did not live at the address they supplied.
While, fortunately, we did get to the bottom of the murky mess and unearth the reality behind this perplexing occurrence, it served as a giant wake-up call. Just like there is no substitute for in-person research, there is no replacement for face-to-face recruiting.
Understanding avoidant shoppers
Perhaps the best way to express the value of in-person research is through the presentation of it. If pictures are indeed worth 1,000 words then video is certainly worth 10,000. The ability to show clients, colleagues, sales teams and potential buyers the story of the research directly from the mouth of the consumers is invaluable.
I am reminded of a study we conducted last year on behalf a major retail store. The retailer wanted to understand why shoppers were avoiding a certain area of their otherwise thriving retail environment. Again, we placed ourselves squarely in the midst of the action to observe shoppers' behavior and intercept them in the process of visiting - or more aptly, avoiding - this area.
Over the course of several weeks the picture became very clear. Through in-person observations and in-depth interviews, we came to realize that shoppers were intimidated and confused by a number of displays in this section. This insight was entirely missed by the reams of quantitative data and tremendous thought and strategy on the part of the planners and merchandisers. Only boots-on-the ground research could have uncovered such insights and only fly-on-the-wall cameras could have captured the story to tell.
Simply no replacement
Whether building rapport, recruiting real participants or recording the insights, there is simply no replacement for in-person research. While this declaration may not win any spots at the next market research conference, let's consider the heart of the matter: No sooner will that conference be held online than will qualitative research be relegated to an Internet-only existence. Connection is what gives our lives and our research meaning and those connections are best made face-to-face.